The Australian Newspaper 4th November 2014


Melbourne Cup 2014: Not fascinated by being whipped into a total frenzy

Sports Reporter
Unlike these dapper young gentlemen, Will Swanton will not be dressing up for Melbourne C

Unlike these dapper young gentlemen, Will Swanton will not be dressing up for Melbourne Cup day. Source: Getty Images

THE Melbourne Cup. Leaves me cold. Makes me cringe. The cheesy television interviews. The fashion? Couldn’t give a stuff about the fashion. The celebs?

Couldn’t give a stuff about B-grade celebs trying to act like A-grade celebs. Couldn’t give a stuff about A-grade celebs, either. Couldn’t care less about the nationwide tradition of getting pissed and gambling. Hate to be a nag. It’s just an opinion. Opinions are like tips for Flemington. Everybody’s got one.

I’m no animal activist. I’m happy enough for a chicken to be fattened up, killed, beheaded and roasted for the purposes of an inexpensive meal deal. If the Javan Rhinoceros, Sumatran Tiger and Black-Footed Ferret go from near-extinction to full-blown extinction, I doubt I’ll be losing much sleep. But somehow the sight of constrained horses being trotted out for the purposes of alleged sporting activity has become distasteful to these eyes.

The Victoria Derby was on TV on Saturday. The giggling pre-race interviews from the hospitality marquees: I think I’d rather be whipped.

What are you wearing? Who are you wearing? More to the point, where’s the flipping mute button? Preferment won. All I could see was the bridle. The crownpiece. The throatlatch. The noseband. The bit, the really distressing bit, the bit that disappeared into Preferment’s mouth and lodged against the supersensitive areas of gum between the teeth. I imagined being Preferment. I imagined the bit between my teeth. I’d still rather be whipped.

INTERACTIVE: A Melbourne Cup guide

A letter arrived on the sports desk of The Australian yesterday. It read: “Overuse of the whip in racing is very visible. It’s plain to see with the naked eye. What the average punter doesn’t see are the severe bits that are used in horses mouths.

During the last 20 years it’s become increasingly common for horses to be handled and raced in ‘rearing’ bits. These circular bits are very thin and curve downwards inside a horse’s mouth. They apply severe pressure on a horse’s tongue. I’ve seen many horses with cut and damaged tongues caused by ‘rearing’ bits.”

The author of the letter was Neil Davies, a full-time trainer since 1977 of more than a thousand horses. The hundred-dollar backyard ponies. The million-dollar thoroughbreds.

“I believe that ‘rearing’ bits should be banned,” he wrote. “Every horse can feel a normal snaffle bit in his mouth. No horse needs more pain and pressure to control him. It’s a mystery to me how a ‘rearing’ bit is supposed to help control a horse or help him to run faster.

“Horse welfare should be the priority of every horse person. Yet archaic practices are still accepted in horse handling, and especially in the early handling and breaking in of young horses.

“Behind the scenes, young horses are terrorised with flags and ropes. Bucking, chasing and fighting are accepted as the norm. These techniques are condoned by some of the American horse gurus and have become common practise. It’s time to wake up and realise there’s a better way to handle and educate horses.”

Does a racehorse even know it’s in a race against the other horses? “A good question,” Davies says. “In my opinion, horses don’t know anything about winning or losing. When they go to the races they know what’s coming — a run around the track with other horses at extreme speed.

“That’s why they get excited and nervous before a race. But if horses were competitive and trying to win, there would be no need to put jockeys on their backs.”

Professor Phil McManus is from the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences in the Faculty of Science. He’s the author of a book called The Global Horseracing Industry: Social, Economic, Environmental and Ethical Perspectives. “Nearly 700 million people will watch the Melbourne Cup,” he said yesterday.

“I’d like those people to ask themselves two questions. Are horses in the Melbourne Cup being whipped to enhance steering and jockey safety? Would any jockey or horse have been in greater danger if the whip was not used?

“We can still have the best thoroughbreds in the world racing at Flemington, the street parade, the fashions, the roses in bloom, the big parties — it would be a better party if whips were not used in the 2015 Melbourne Cup.”

I reckon a full house at an SCG cricket Test knows a lot about cricket. I reckon a packed Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open knows a lot about tennis. I reckon an MCG crowd for an AFL grand final knows a lot about Aussie Rules and the players involved.

There’s a heavy emotional investment in the human endeavour. The Cup revolves around the financial investment. Nothing wrong with that. But it ain’t sport. It’s an arvo at the casino. No animals are harmed in the making of a casino. There’s upsides to the first Tuesday in November. The social gatherings. The tradition. The once-a-year-punters. The office sweeps. The sloshed young fillies with too much makeup and a broken shoe. The jockeys are good value. The trainers are great value. The horses, though? Do we care about the horses?

A fellow sports enthusiast was asked yesterday what he thought was going through a horse’s mind on Cup Day. He finally brought horse racing into line with one other elite sporting competition. “Anything around here I can root?” was his suggestion. It’s not far removed from sections of the NRL.

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